HW Pick: The New York City Draft Riots Of 1863

June 6, 2020

In September of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. It would take effect January 1, 1863, and free slaves in areas of the nation still in rebellion against the Union.

Despite its limitations, free blacks, slaves, and abolitionists across the country hailed it as one of the most important actions toward full abolition.

To immigrant New Yorkers (principally Irish) the Emancipation Proclamation was confirmation of their worst fears  – that they would be replaced in the labor market by recently emancipated blacks from the South.

In March 1863, a stricter federal draft law was passed. All male citizens between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 were subject to military duty. The federal government entered all eligible men into a lottery. Those who could afford to hire a substitute, or pay the government $300, could avoid enlistment. African Americans, who were not considered citizens, were exempt from the draft.

On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first draft lottery was held. For 24 hours the city remained quiet, but on Monday, July 13, 1863, between 6 and 7 am, five days of mayhem and bloodshed began.

At first, targets included only military and governmental buildings, and people who interfered with the mob. By the afternoon of the first day, however, some of the rioters had attacked black people, their businesses, and other places symbolic of their presence in New York.

Rioters attacked a black fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street for example, before moving to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets.  At 4 pm on July 13th, over 200 children were in their school when several thousand men, women, and children armed with clubs, brickbats, etc., advanced on the orphanage and looted its bedding, clothing, food, and other articles, before setting fire to the building, burning it to the ground.

In an attempt to quell the violence of the largely Irish Catholic mob, Archbishop John Hughes delivered an appeal for peace from his residence near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. By mid-day, the first of more than 4,000 federal troops – fresh from the Battle of Gettysburg – arrived in the city. Within hours of their arrival, they faced-off against rioters in what is now the city’s Murray Hill neighborhood. The officers of the Irish-American 69th New York Regiment noting that “citizens of Irish birth” were responsible for the riots, requested to be “ordered to New York to aid in repressing the violence and disorder which now afflict the people of our own city.” A similar reaction emerged from the rank and file of the Irish-American 9th Massachusetts who, according to one of its officers, “wished for a chance to give those fellows [the rioters] a taste of our quality, and show them how the Irish Ninth could charge.”

The New York Draft riots was a three-day orgy of violence that even today holds the record of being the worst, bloodiest, most destructive and brutal riot of in New York history.  Estimates of the number of people killed in the four days of rioting ranged from 74 to 1,200. Eleven Black men were lynched. Property valued at $5 million was destroyed, and it was estimated that 3,000 black residents (out of a black population of 12,000) were made homeless.

The black population of New York City declined dramatically after the draft riots. In the census of 1860, New York’s black population was 12,414; and by 1865 it was estimated at 9,945. While other Northern cities, including Boston, Buffalo and Detroit, experienced racial violence sparked by the inception of the draft, none were as virulent as the riots in New York City.

Illustration credit: A drawing from a British newspaper showing armed rioters clashing with Union soldiers in New York.

This is a part of a series about 18th and 19th century racial and ethnic riots in the city of New York. The terms Negro and Black are used here in their historical context.

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